SPRINGDALE -- Some of Northwest Arkansas' biggest companies plan to keep most employees from traveling, members of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport Authority Board learned during a retreat Wednesday.
Business travel traditionally has been the airport's bread and butter, accounting for about 65% of all traffic. Leisure travel last summer helped the airport after the bottom fell out of enplanements early this year when the covid-19 pandemic took hold.
Amber Forga, travel buyer for J.B. Hunt; Emma Stacey, senior director of global travel at Walmart; and Scott Creer, senior director for human resources with Procter & Gamble's Walmart Team spoke to the group about corporate travel.
Creer said P&G launched an online technology initiative just before the pandemic hit, and employees have become comfortable doing business that way. Creer said he expects a lot of meetings will continue to be done online after the pandemic passes.
"I do not anticipate getting back to 2019 travel levels for a very long time," he said.
Creer said he expects travel will slowly increase as people get more comfortable with the idea.
Forga said J.B. Hunt has brought about 45% of its staff back to the office, but travel levels of 2019 are not likely.
"I don't think we're going to fully get back there anytime, only because the people we are visiting, our customers, some of them won't be accepting our sales team," Forga said.
Hunt makes more money when its sales teams are able to travel, she said.
Stacey said having a widely available vaccine by the middle of next year could change things.
"For us, I think clearly we would see an increase in travel. We're certainly not going to go back and make up the numbers that we would have traveled for the first six months of the year," she said. "I mean it's still quite difficult to predict what that would look like."
Board members spent much of Wednesday's retreat in free-ranging conversations about how the airport authority can remain financially strong and attract more travelers. They also discussed whether planning for capital projects should go ahead.
Consultants are predicting passengers might not return to prepandemic levels until 2024 or later.